Ape House: The Book Bonobos Deserve

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | October 1, 2010 9:25 am

This is a guest post by Vanessa Woods, author of  Bonobo Handshake published in May 2010. Vanessa is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and studies the cognition of bonobos at at Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in Congo.

51tgh5fPn2L._SS500_I had been spending a fair bit of time studying bonobos at a sanctuary in Congo, so somehow I missed Sara Gruen’s runaway bestseller Water For Elephants, which is now being made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison. But this year I was ready and anxiously awaiting the arrival of Ape House, Gruen’s new novel, and one of the few works of fiction ever written about bonobos.

Writing a novel about bonobos is like trying to write about unicorns – most people don’t know they exist. However, unlike unicorns, bonobos are very real. They are our closest living relatives, along with chimpanzees, and share 98.7% of our DNA. But while chimpanzees are male dominated and occasionally beat their females and kill each other, bonobos are female dominated and their society has relatively little violence.

The biggest accomplishment of Ape House is that it brings bonobos to life. The writing is effortless, as though Gruen sat down and wrote the book in one breezy afternoon. But don’t be deceived. The amount of research that went into accurately portraying these rare, gentle apes is enormous. Gruen places her apes in a language research institute – and covering the basics of non human language is a task that would intimidate most scientists.

The Ape House bonobos are exceptional communicators. Like several real life apes before them, they use American Sign Language in a whole range of novel contexts, providing perhaps our most extensive and intimate experience with the thoughts and emotions of another species. Gruen spent time with the bonobos Kanzi and Panbinisha at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, and some of her experiences are clearly portrayed in the book (Kanzi is notorious, like Ape House’s Bonzi, for being very particular about how his coffee is made).

lr nursery b 024Ape House begins with a dramatic kidnapping of the bonobos from their home at the language institute. They eventually turn up as stars in a reality television series, because, wait for it, bonobos have a lot of sex. If you think this is an outlandish idea, think again. I once had an excited documentary producer suggest that we simultaneously film the sanctuary bonobos and a house full of fraternity boys. I think the producer’s exact words were ‘the bonobos will be having sex while the guys are having sex – it’ll be great!’

Sex is an important mechanism of bonobo society – it functions as both conflict management and tension relief. If bonobos feel threatened or anxious, usually they have sex. In most cases the sex is not erotic, it’s as casual and friendly as a handshake. Unfortunately, it is probably the reason why no one knows about them. Because of the bonobo handshake, bonobos are rarely featured in documentaries. They are occasionally left off the phylogenetic tree. Even scientists, who should know better, frequently only talk about our one closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Gruen  admirably portrays the bonobos as being as puzzled at our sexual proclivities as we are with theirs. Frustrated with the lack of sex going on in the bonobo house, the reality television mogul, who is a porn king, orders a blow up doll to be delivered to the ‘Ape House’. The bonobos tenderly cover her with a blanket.

At a recent study we conducted at Duke University, only 25% of people know bonobos are a great ape, compared to 80% of people who know that chimpanzees are a great ape. After the success of Water For Elephants, it’s almost a given that Ape House will be read by thousands of people, bringing bonobos out of the closet into the spotlight, where they belong.


Comments (1)

  1. We have a lot to learn from bonobos, you have to love an animal that can settle almost any disagreement with a hand job =)



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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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